SD Startup Introduces Qubit-Generating Device for Quantum Computing

5/22/14Follow @bvbigelow

A San Diego startup says it has developed a laser-based device for generating qubits, the basic unit of information needed to carry out complex calculations in quantum computers.

The startup, founded in 2012 as GridCOM Technologies, was initially focused on developing quantum encryption systems to provide cybersecurity in the IT systems that electric utilities use to control the power grid.

The company changed its name to Qubitekk in early April to reflect how it has expanded beyond the power grid to apply its expertise in quantum physics in other fields, according to Qubitekk CEO Stephanie Rosenthal. The qubit generator, for example, could serve as a key component in the development of quantum computers as well as the basis for unhackable quantum encryption technology. The company says its device would enable developers to build quantum computers in less time, with less complexity, and at much lower cost.

“Qubitekk’s mission is to enable the adoption of quantum computing and cryptography technologies and applications,” Rosenthal wrote in an e-mail. “Protecting critical infrastructure from cyber-attacks is one important aspect of it, but we wanted the name to better reflect our universal core technology of creating quantum entangled particles.”

The company currently has nine employees, and has raised about $2 million since it was founded, “mostly from private investors in the oil and agriculture industries with vested and patriotic interests in protecting the country’s critical infrastructure,” Rosenthal said. One major backer is Ellis Energy Investments of Bakersfield, CA.

The field of quantum computing, introduced in the early 1980s by the late Richard Feynman and other theoretical physicists, remains largely experimental. The concept takes advantage of the strange world of quantum physics, in which qubits operate much like bits, the 1s and 0s that enable conventional computers to store information and carry out complex calculations.

Qubits, however, can exist as both 1s and 0s at the same time, and make it possible to carry out complex calculations simultaneously instead of sequentially. Qubits also represent a new approach to cybersecurity, because multiple qubits can be “entangled”; if one member of a pair of entangled qubits is measured to be a 0, for example, the other member of the pair must also become a 0, even if it’s far away. Because it’s impossible to interact with one qubit without simultaneously affecting its twin—a quantum effect that Albert Einstein described as “spooky action at a distance”—qubits can be used to create tamper-proof encryption keys.

In coming years, Qubitekk plans to commercialize the technology needed to create large-scale quantum encryption networks that financial institutions, transportation providers, telecommunications companies, retailers, military, and others can use to secure their data and IT systems.

But as BBC science editor Paul Rincon recently reported, “Scientists have struggled to entangle more than a handful of qubits, and to maintain them in their quantum state. Lab devices suffer from drop-out, where the qubits lose their ambiguity and become straightforward 1s and 0s.”

Qubitekk’s shoebox-size device uses a blue laser focused on an advanced crystal, producing one pair of entangled red photons for every 1 billion blue photons, according to chief technology officer Duncan Earl, who worked previously at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. That might not seem very efficient, but Earl says the device, called a quantum entanglement source, can generate 10,000 entangled pairs a second.

Qubitekk, GridCOM, Quantum Physics, Quantum Entanglement, Qubit

Duncan Earl

Amid recent breaches of major retailers and revelations about mass surveillance, Earl said, “Quantum cryptography is our best weapon against these growing threats. A priority must be placed on developing these solutions before it is too late.”

In a recent statement, Qubitekk says its device “simplifies and drastically reduces the cost of generating and controlling quantum bits, or qubits, the life-blood of powerful universal quantum computers.” The company says its device also can be assembled in arrays, making it possible to develop larger and more powerful quantum computing architectures.

D-Wave, a Canadian startup near Vancouver, BC, with funding from Google, NASA, Lockheed Martin, and In-Q-Tel (the nonprofit venture capital arm of the CIA), says it has developed the world’s first commercially available quantum computer. In order to obtain quantum effects, liquid helium is used to cool the chip to 0.02 Kelvin, a shade above the temperature known as absolute zero.

“There is a huge effort across the world to build one of these quantum computers, but unfortunately not so much in the United States,” Earl said. “The Chinese are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on research and development.”

Qubitekk is offering its device to academic research labs and others working at the frontier of quantum computing. The pricetag ranges from about $18,000 to $87,000, depending on the capabilities, Earl said.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow